Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Life and Legacy of Saint Jim

Few individuals are afforded a public eulogy. Rarer still, as Jim Flaherty was, to be afforded two very obsequious public eulogies in such a short span of time. The first, just three weeks ago, recapped a career in politics spanning two decades. The coverage of Flaherty's retirement from his Finance post -- his political eulogy -- was met with platitudes from pundits and politicians. The coverage of his tragic passing -- his personal eulogy -- was met with much the same. Indeed, the rhetoric has been almost identical, but this is to be expected. How to separate the politics from the man when the two were so deeply entwined?

Rules of decorum and public mores about death are tricky to navigate at such times, particularly under these tragic circumstances. The common expectation is one of De mortuis nihil nisi bonum: of the dead, nothing unless good. Such a tenet is perhaps a useful guide for those who pass privately and whose lives have not impacted millions of people -- for good or bad. It is a poor guide, however, for public figures, particularly figures whose lives are so mired in politics because the politics continue, despite the official public moratorium.

To follow this dictum immediately puts one's foes at a disadvantage as there is no expectation of reciprocation on the part of the bereaved and their allies. While there is a clear expectation of 'nothing unless good', there is certainly no limitation of equal to 'nothing unless true'. When a political figure is involved it becomes a chance to embellish, to play politics under the guise of grief and to extol the virtues of one's own worldview. It also provides an opportunity establish a narrative and do so without question.

Just look at the rhetoric. Perhaps the statement from the Prime Minister on Flaherty's passing provides the most direct example: "Dear friends, today is a very sad day for me, for our Government and for all of our country". While Flaherty may have been well-liked by his parliamentary colleagues, he and the government(s) he was apart of were deeply polarizing. I suspect many millions - particularly those whore bore the brunt of his policies - may not share these sentiments. Nevertheless, for the Prime Minister and his party, it provides this opportunity to embellish, to universalize and exaggerate. A personal loss becomes a national one. The politics are sanitized, the harm erased. To challenge this clearly political narrative is disrespectful and, as such, is forbidden.

Dealing with these limitations leads to nothing short of disingenuous encomium. Vitriol for the living; exhalations for the dead. Accuse a man in the most vile terms while he is alive, but hold your tongue after he passes. It as if the ills one visits upon others are to be forgotten, or at least punted to a much later date. This is, of course, compounded by the tinge of tragedy. Sudden loss tends to blunt criticism more so than death on its own.

There are clear parallels here to the passing, parallels that are deeply revealing. Neither passing has been handled honestly. In both cases, the loss to the country has been universalized. The left is now reaping what it helped sew with Mr. Layton: one's politics may be divisive, but what matters is one's affability and human touch. Mr. Layton has these qualities in spades; Mr. Flaherty, by all accounts had the same. Flaherty twisted the fiscal knife deep into the body politics, but by god he did it with a song in his heart and a smile on his face. Hours before news broke of his death the major story was also the product of his life's work: the devastating loss of another 10% of the CBC's workforce. Over six hundred lives upended with the stroke of a pen. Hours later the man responsible would be hailed in almost saintly terms.

Subsequently, the mainstream press (and, indeed, alternative outlets like Rabble and 'thinking persons' programs like The Agenda) have drunk the nil nisi Kool-aid, banishing any genuine reflection or critical thinking. The Conservatives can, with impunity, state that Jim Flaherty is the 'greatest finance minister ever' and repeat the tired rhetoric that he saved Canada from the global recession. Of course, these are all cast in Conservative terms. The 'greatest finance minister ever' knee-capped the country's fiscal outlook by cutting the GST (creating a structural deficit) while he ratcheted spending upward; denied the existence of an on-coming global recession and then, when pushed, peppered the country with Economic Action Plan signs; intervened directly in the housing market (he is a, after all, for free markets); and, with his final testament (the 2014 Budget) cooked the books to the advantage of his party in the coming election. Meanwhile, the 'steady hand' theory is the product of longevity with a self-fulfilling characteristic.

We are told again, that it is impolite and uncaring to speak of his political legacy at this time; that the focus should be on Flaherty the man, not Flaherty the politician. The problem in the case of Flaherty is that the two have already been conflated. The eulogies of mere weeks ago are now doubling as the personal eulogies of a life, yet to challenge this is deemed uncouth. If it is not possible to speak truthfully about the record, the record should not be discussed at all and the mourning should be strictly personal. If those eulogizing the man refuse to separate the politics and instead use his passing as an opportunity to paint ideology as virtue, critics have a duty to rebuff these inherently political tributes.

Mr. Flaherty deserves to be honoured for his service. Whether or not his politics had a positive impact or not, his actions and policies were the product of a legitimately elected government and thus should be acknowledged, if not respected. He served for many year in the second highest office at the federal level, doing so, by all accounts, to the detriment of his health. The marker of one's public service should not be reduced to affability and charm, nor should the requirement for honouring an individual be uniformity in sentiment or public opinion and widespread agreement with one's politics. At the same time, the tragedy of the passing should not absolve, nor should it silence those wishing to correct the public record.

Nothing of the dead unless good; nothing of the dead unless true.

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